I, Robot Review
The Three Laws of Robotics
1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
2. A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.
The word “robot” was invented by Karel Capek in his 1921 play R.U.R., which stands for “Rossum’s Universal Robots”. The word itself is derived from the Czech for “worker”. Giving Capek his due, the writer who did most to develop the concept of robots is undoubtedly Isaac Asimov (1920-1992), beginning with “Robbie” (aka “Strange Playfellow”) in 1940. During subsequent stories in the 1940s he devised the Three Laws of Robotics, finally taking robots away from the faceless mechanical menaces that they had been in written SF up to then. I, Robot was first published in book form in 1950, but Asimov continued to write robot stories for the rest of his career, including “The Bicentennial Man” (published in 1976, filmed in 1999).
There have been attempts to film I, Robot before: a complete but unproduced screenplay by Harlan Ellison is available in print. One stumbling block, apart from probable datedness and the fact that Asimov’s work has had such an influence on subsequent SF that it will hardly seem fresh, is that I, Robot is not actually a novel but a collection of linked short stories. It hardly comes as a surprise that this present film version has virtually nothing to do with Asimov’s book. It keeps the title, one or two character names, and the Three Laws are quoted at the very beginning. And that’s it. Instead we get a story (credited to Jeff Vintar with a screenplay co-credit going to Akiva Goldsman, “suggested” by Asimov’s book) in which a detective, Del Spooner (Will Smith) investigates a suicide that he suspects is a murder. The suicide is robotics pioneer Alfred Lanning (James Cromwell). Spooner suspects that the killer is a robot, despite what the Three Laws say…
I, Robot is an android of a movie, efficiently put together but ultimately soulless and unoriginal. What cachet the filmmakers gain by invoking Asimov’s name in this film won’t get them very far – in its emphasis on robots as objects of fear, the film is a perversion of his work. Many of Asimov’s stories exploit loopholes in the Three Laws, but those laws were always there. The filmmakers take the easy way out and dump the laws at the earliest opportunity, as Spooner discovers a robotic conspiracy to supplant the human race.
None of this would particularly matter if I, Robot was actually much good. But it seems tired, and very much second hand. Visions of the near future have been done with much more density and detail elsewhere (Minority Report most recently comes to mind). Will Smith seems to be going through the motions, though an opening sequence showing him working out and having a shower might well be the highlight of the movie for some viewers. And you can forget about any chemistry between him and his female lead, played by Bridget Moynahan. Alex Proyas has shown himself in past films to be a director of some visual flair, which in The Crow and Dark City and even a light comedy like Garage Days soon becomes overbearing. That isn’t really the case here, though the special effects and action sequences are as professionally done as you'd expect. But there’s nothing in this film you haven’t seen before and will no doubt see again before too long.